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Ballot Measures Transform Into Political Chess Pieces For Special Interests


The same kind of gridlock that has paralyzed Congress is also present in many statehouses across the country. So interest groups and voters who are frustrated with an action are turning to ballot measures this year, and there are a bunch of them. We're going to listen to two stories about that now from Maine and Colorado. From Maine Public Broadcasting Network, Steve Mistler starts us off.

STEVE MISTLER, BYLINE: Maine voters will vote on a record five ballot measures this fall. They're being asked to legalize marijuana, impose tighter gun restrictions, increase taxes for education funding and to completely overhaul Maine's election system. Republican Governor Paul LePage doesn't like any of them.


PAUL LEPAGE: In November they will ask you to vote for more taxes, more drugs, more labor costs and more complicated elections. Just say no.

MISTLER: LePage sees a conspiracy by liberal activists to undercut his conservative agenda. The governor is a big reason why there are so many liberal measures on the ballot in Maine this year. LePage vetoed hundreds of bills passed by the state legislature, including an increase in the minimum wage to $10 an hour.

AMY HALSTED: In Maine, like in states across the country, voters have taken this into their own hands to bring the issue to ballot.

MISTLER: Amy Halsted is running the campaign to boost the minimum wage, something the state hasn't done in nearly a decade. Halsted's group decided to take the issue directly to voters and pursue a higher wage increase than the one LePage vetoed. Jennie Bowser is a former senior fellow for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

JENNIE BOWSER: Well, you know, you might sort of have the perfect storm going on in Maine.

MISTLER: There's a spike in citizen initiatives across the country this year - 75 measures in 24 states according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute. Bowser says what's going on in Maine is similar to what's going on in other states - legislative paralysis and voters acting like a fourth branch of government to enact policies that lawmakers won't.

BOWSER: The initiative process was supposed to be sort of an outlet where voters could take matters into their own hands and get the work done that they were not successfully advocating for within the legislature.

MISTLER: Bowser says these initiatives aren't quite a grassroots revolt. They're expensive campaigns run by political professionals. Also, Democrats have lost their grip on state legislatures. Sixty percent of statehouses are under GOP control. The ballot has become the path to enact liberal goals just as it was for conservatives when they were in the opposition.

But as you'll hear in a moment, there's also more practical reasons why there are so many liberal measures on the ballot this fall. For NPR News, I'm Steve Mistler in Augusta, Maine.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: And I'm Megan Verlee in Denver, Colo., where there are seven citizen initiatives on the ballot this year. Every one of them is a labor of love for some interest group or another. But initiatives can also become political chess pieces manipulated by outside interests trying to shape the rest of the election.

RICK RIDDER: Sometimes it is simply because they want to create an environment where candidates have to respond to an issue.

VERLEE: Rick Ridder heads RBI Strategies, a Denver campaign shop that often works on liberal initiatives. He says he hears frequently from national strategists concerned about what's being proposed in Colorado.

RIDDER: You certainly get calls in both ways. Yeah, please put that on the ballot. You know, we'd really like to see that on the ballot. And you get calls to say, tell them no, please. We don't want to have to take a position on that.

VERLEE: Forcing candidates to take tough positions is just one way that citizen initiatives serve as political tools, according to Josh Penry, a Republican former state senator.

JOSH PENRY: And it is frequently used by interest groups as a pretext to create a fight and bring in more money to turn out your vote to drive electoral outcomes.

VERLEE: Penry now runs campaigns for and against ballot measures. And for anyone who doubts their power to affect the vote, he says just look at Colorado's 2012 initiative to legalize marijuana.

PENRY: If you talk to the Romney people, their loss in Colorado - marijuana was huge. The segment of younger voters that participate in Colorado versus virtually any other swing state in the nation - significantly higher here. Those were Obama voters. It's a big deal.

VERLEE: Few issues have that kind of power, though, to get people to vote who otherwise would sit it out. One is marijuana. Another is raising the minimum wage. So it's probably no accident that both of those issues are on more than a few state ballots this fall. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.